Thursday, 27 October 2011
Centrepoint, a charity set up to help young homeless people, undoubtedly does good work. By providing temporary accommodation and food to those who sleep rough, the charity gives a lifeline that might otherwise be unavailable to Britain’s many rough sleepers.
Understanding exactly how many people sleep rough in Britain is notoriously difficult, since most homeless people fall outside any formal record-keeping system. However, in 2007-08 teams from CHAIN, London’s most comprehensive database on rough sleeping, counted 3,017 different individuals sleeping rough on the streets of London alone, giving some idea of the scale of the problem.
None of this is helped by complex benefit rules, which mean that a person can be in temporary accommodation and entitled under law to permanent housing from the state, whilst someone on the street sleeping rough is not entitled to housing under the same rules.
Centrepoint’s latest initiative is a so-called ‘Sleep Out’, whereby volunteers are asked to sleep rough on the evening of November 7 in order to raise money and get a feel for what it's like, as Centrepoint puts it, to ‘sleep on boxes on a hard, cold floor among the bright lights of the city.’
It might seem extraordinarily harsh to criticise such an initiative. Centrepoint are a charity, after all, and the £250,000 they are hoping to raise through sponsorship during Sleep Out is undoubtedly vital to maintaining the many important services they provide to young homeless people.
A closer look at the event, however, left me feeling uneasy. I put this down at first to my own charity induced cynicism - ingrained by the legions of perky people with clipboards jumping in my path every time I leave the house - but a closer inspection of Centrepoint’s website did little to allay my concerns.
Naively perhaps, I assumed Sleep Out would be about developing an understanding of the realities of rough sleeping. There would, after all, be a certain logic to that – by sleeping rough yourself you would invariably put yourself in the shoes of other, less fortunate people, thereby gaining an insight into how they feel on a day to day basis. In other words, you would learn empathy.
With this in mind I did not expect to stumble across the following sentence in the promotional material:
'Sleep Out is not just about sleeping. There will be plenty of entertainment in the evening, and even a bedtime story from Christopher Biggins!’
Now I’ve nothing against bedtime stories with Christopher Biggins, nor am I a believer in a strictly dour, Victorian form of altruism. There is nothing inherently wrong with being cheerful; and while wackiness can be incredibly annoying, I can see its purpose when it comes to hectoring otherwise busy individuals into giving money.
Were it only the above sentence I would probably let it slide, but further browsing of Centrepoint’s website led to the picture I had in my mind of a solidarity exercise being replaced by a sense that the whole thing was little more than a gimmick – and a fairly offensive gimmick at that.
I found the following in the FAQ section:
‘You will be sleeping in a secure area and we will have security guards to protect you and your belongings.’
‘There will be a canopy overhead, so you will be protected from the elements too.’
‘Refreshments [will be] provided throughout the night.’
‘Goody bags for all participants.’
‘A best fundraiser prize for the person or team who raise the most.’
‘Breakfast served from 6am.’
Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds almost like an improvement on the sleeping arrangements of many working class people, let alone rough sleepers. Presumably the security guards who watch over Sleep Out’s participants are also under strict orders not to allow genuine rough sleepers into the encampment, despite the fact they could probably do with the free refreshments and hot breakfasts on offer.
You might wonder if any of this matters if the end result is a lot of money being raised for a good cause. Yet being homeless is not something that can be sanitised, and reducing it to an outdoor jolly where people huddle together and laugh at Christopher Biggins with tea and breakfast on demand - while actual rough sleepers gawk through security fences at the people pretending to be them - is in bad taste to say the least.
It would perhaps be nice if, as a bare minimum, we evolved a kind of charitable giving whereby we treated those on the receiving end of our good fortune as actual human beings, rather than locked them out of the process behind security guards and fences.
It would also be nice if we did away with the cynical notion that ‘fun’ is the only way we can get people to give a second thought to those less fortunate than ourselves.
Monday, 24 October 2011
People having sex changes are the new targets
By Emily Dugan and James Bloodworth
Hate crime towards gay and transgender people is on the rise across Britain, with thousands of people suffering abuse for their sexuality every year. Crimes against transgender people went up by 14 per cent during 2010 and, in some cities, attacks motivated by sexual prejudice are up by as much as 170 per cent annually.
Thursday, 20 October 2011
If there is one thing that has become apparent in recent years it is that protest in the West is no longer the preserve of tightly organised, left-wing groupuscules. Much of the discourse emanating from recent protests has even carried with it an explicit rejection of, and at times hostility toward, left parties of all stripes – parliamentary as well as revolutionary.
Ignoring for a second the unappealing nature of many left groups, in part this may be down to a fear of being turned into an easy target for the establishment; for while today’s protesters have little time for conventional politics, they do appear to have adopted from 21st century social democratic parties the belief that to win popular support one must hide one’s beliefs under a covering of platitudes and vagaries.
It’s probably also correct to say that at present the protests are not all that left wing, for there is no getting away from the suspicion that a generation which has incorporated modern technology into its protest movements has probably in the process absorbed at least some of the commitmentless individualism that characterises modern capitalism.
Structurelessness and spontaneity are very much the buzzwords of the movement; and narcissistic figures such as Michael Moore and Julian Assange have become its media darlings. Both are feted by the movement because both are defined by what they are against – the corporations, shadowy financiers, America - rather than what they are for. In this respect, when the right asks the protesters what they would do with power they have a point – there comes a time when the carnival atmosphere is not enough and you must get down to the business of making proactive demands. If you wish to be taken seriously, that is.
Outside of a hodgepodge of people stood around in city squares, there appears to be little willingness to attend to the boring formalities that come with democracy in practice, which involves more than the direct democracy of the town square; and some of which may be a tad boring.
Going by the conversations I had with protesters many only had a vague idea of what they were against: a ‘rogue one per cent’, the bankers, big business. Others placed their faith in the possibility of workers and bosses joining forces, the interests of the exploiters and the exploited becoming one to confront a tiny minority who are accused of running off with the loot. Others echoed right-wing journalists like Peter Oborne, who refuse to see a crisis of capitalism and instead blame moral failures for the crash.
While the occupy protests are encouraging in a whole host of ways, one of the problems the occupiers face is that at every juncture they are stuffed with ‘revolution as play’ types – many of whom don’t wish to see any radical change at all. For them the whole thing is about posture, feelings and ‘making a statement’ – as if the purpose of the movement itself should be about making a lot of noise and then going home.
All of that being said, the occupy movements are at least something; and there is no reason why the platitudes of middle class narcissist activism will not be drowned out by something better as the crisis develops.
*I am currently writing for the Independent on Sunday, but will be back blogging as normal next week.
Thursday, 6 October 2011
When a celebrity passes away, there is invariably a small but noisy crowd for whom any attempt at critical reflection is akin to urinating on the grave of the deceased.
The Latin phrase, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum este, which translates as ‘Speak no ill of the dead’, demonstrates that hyper-sentimentality is nothing new, whether superstitious or otherwise. The idea of offending the relatives of the departed before every smidgen of grief has subsided is something that is, and always has been, frowned upon.
One objection for those of us who do not take this sentimental view is that if it is off limits to criticise those who have recently passed away, then it must inevitably be off limits to criticise even the most reprehensible characters posthumously, for it's rarely justified for one’s family members to be tormented for one’s own conduct in life.
In the case of the Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO who died yesterday, other factors override such sentimentality, such as how to react when the deceased did his utmost in life to avoid, ignore or downplay the sufferings of those for whom he had ultimate responsibility.
Jobs was undoubtedly a fantastic innovator. He helped to revolutionise computing and telecommunications to a previously unimaginable extent.
He was also in charge of, and according to the BBC, exerted an ‘unheard of level of influence’ over, a company that was responsible for labour practices that left Chinese workers sick, injured and in some cases driven to suicide.
Jobs was made aware repeatedly of what was going on, but apparently did very little about it.
According to the Global Post:
Six months ago, factory workers in Suzhou poisoned two years ago by toxic chemicals at the factory wrote to [Steve] Jobs directly, asking for his help in getting medical care and compensation for their illnesses and lost work time.
They never got an answer… Two years after the chemical exposure and many months of medical treatment later, they still say they’ve never heard from anyone at Apple directly.
I am inclined to agree with Liam Mcnulty of The Great Unrest, when he says: ‘It's a shame that the way society is currently organised makes tragedy the condition for actualizing a genuinely creative vision’.
I also feel that neither Jobs nor his ‘legacy’ should be let off the hook simply because he was part of a system that inevitably worked in his favour. Jobs had a personal responsibility to ensure that his workers were treated decently, and in this respect he failed dismally.
Celebrating his death would be silly and extreme. That does not, however, stop me from reserving my sympathy for the labourers whose lives were made unbearable by the practices of this man’s cult-like corporation.
Tuesday, 4 October 2011
To get an idea of just how many people there are currently protesting in New York one would do better than to watch the BBC.
Despite the fact that thousands have rallied in recent weeks against what has become known in the popular lexicon as the ‘feral rich’, the Corporation has dedicated little time to a mass protest that in recent US history is completely unprecedented.
The BBC is often held up in right-wing mythology as a kind of Marxist propaganda outlet staffed by ageing lefties who still think that they are still living in 1968.
In reality, the Corporation is anchored far more to the prevailing orthodoxy of laissez-faire economics than either its opponents or devotees would care to admit.
The Corporation’s minimal coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protest begs the question as to whether there can ever be such a thing as an objective media. Nick Davies, in his book Flat Earth News, thinks not:
‘The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces objective truth. It is a classic Flat Earth tale, widely believed and devoid of reality. It has never happened and never will happen because it cannot happen. Reality exists objectively, but any attempt to record the truth about it always and everywhere necessarily involves selection.’
While the idea of the BBC as a counterweight to the inherent bias of the commercial sector is worth defending, it is naive to think that the BBC is not itself influenced by the virulent anti-worker agenda of its nearest competitors. This should be apparent to all thinking people every time a BBC journalist fails to challenge yet another assertion that British business is being buried under ‘red-tape’ or ‘over regulation’, despite the fact that British workers have some of the worst labour rights in the western world.
Selection also influences the language that is employed to report the news. Yesterday’s announcement by George Osborne (and supported by ‘nice’ Vince Cable), that he is planning to deter with large fee increases workers who wish to take their employers to a tribunal, was reported by the BBC mostly for the fact that it will apparently save British business some £6m a year.
That the change in the law will make holding bigoted or law-breaking bosses accountable indomitably more difficult was hardly factored into the equation, despite the fact that it could negatively impact on the lives of the 90% of British people who make their living working for somebody else.
Defend the BBC against self-interested accusations of left-wing bias and elitism, by all means; but let us not suffer under any illusions as to the conformity of the Corporation, which is inevitably influenced by the power of those with more than an axe to grind when it comes to the relationship between the exploiters and exploited.